Thorsten Zöller

Back to Articles

Don’t Continue Where You Left Off

2019-10-11

I used to be one of those guys who had more than 30 open tabs in their internet browser at any given time. It was not so much that I was too lazy to close them when I didn’t need them any more; the problem was rather that I felt I lost important information that I might find useful later. Of course, on average this led to a continuous increase of open tabs over time. I certainly closed some once in a while, but not as often as I found new interesting sites.

I lived with this bad habit for many years before I was eventually able to quit it.[1] The solution turned out to be very simple: I made tabs non-persistent across browser sessions. This is very easily done by choosing the option to open the new tab page on startup (instead of continuing where you left off, i.e. re-opening all tabs that were open when the browser was closed the last time). By this simple change of settings (incidentally, there was a time when this was the only option available), irrespective of how many tabs are open in my browser when I close it, on the next startup I will end up with a clean slate of no open tabs.

Of course, this solution does not come for free: I still have to cope with the potential loss of information before I close my browser. The point is that I am no longer able to delay or ignore the issue. Actually, the decision is not even if I can accept to lose information or not; after all, if I decide that the information on some site is indeed important or will be important in the future, I just need to save it somewhere. So the decision to be made is rather: Does the site contain information I consider sufficiently important to save it or not? And whenever I close my browser, I have to ask this question for every open tab and decide: Either I save the respective information somewhere, or it will be gone.[2]

Making the decision at the end of a day before closing the browser seems much easier than previously, though, simply because I am usually faced with a much lower number of tabs, namely by the relatively few I opened throughout the day. And in addition, it just feels good to close the browser at the end of the day knowing that it will greet me with a clean slate when I start it the next time.

The irony of all this is that I remember very well how delighted I was when that feature was first introduced in browsers (yes, it was not always available) — finally the danger to lose any important information when closing the browser was gone! Had I only known the price of that feature at that time…​

Of course, this very same problem exists in many areas of life. However, it is mostly a property of the digital space that things can even be non-persistent (so in fact introducing the possibility to persist tabs across browsing sessions was in a way an imitation of how things usually behave in the physical space, where things usually don’t just disappear at the end of the day). While in the physical space it is usually the default for things to be persistent, in the digital space it is mostly the default for things to be non-persistent. In the digital space, data needs to be actively written to a filesystem or database in order to persist it; in the physical space, things actively have to be destroyed in order to make them vanish.

Of course, trying to apply the same reasoning as above to the physical space, the solution cannot be to destroy every thing used throughout the day before going to bed each night. After all, another difference between the physical and digital spaces is that in the physical space, things tend to be unique, while in the digital space it is often easy to recreate things.

In the end, however, the point is actually not so much whether things are persistent or not, but to decide where they belong. If the information contained on a website is still needed, it should be filed in a structured way instead of just leaving it in a limbo-like state in the browser; and if it is no longer needed, the tab containing the website should simply be closed. And that reasoning can very well be applied to the physical space: When finishing some activity, try to leave no trace, to re-establish a clean slate.


1. I tried various browser extensions for managing tabs before I figured out that the problem is not to manage the tabs, but to process them in a timely manner.
2. Of course, even if I decide not to save the information, it is not really gone; I might just have some trouble to find it again later on, or I might forget about it altogether (which is usually what I fear more).